Law firms can learn a few things about survival from the strategies of a culinary superstar.
We’ve all heard it for months now. The country is experiencing the worst economy since the Great Depression. Business in many practice areas has tumbled. Megafirms have dissolved overnight. Interestingly, a superstar of the culinary world has some strategies that can help law firms survive.
During a recent commute, I read an article in Amtrak’s Arrive magazine in which the great chef Gordon Ramsay discussed why his restaurants are rated so highly (“Gordon Ramsay Means
Business,” by Dennis McCafferty, January/February 2009). Ramsay pointed to several factors of “greatness,” which he uses in all of his endeavors to ensure success, including consistency; a trusted, professional staff; top-quality ingredients; good prep work; a well-tested menu; and a great quality environment. I couldn’t help but see a connection between his six factors and those that make a law firm stand out, especially in this economy.
Intrigued by this idea, I took my research a step further by testing out Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant in New York to see if it really lives up to these factors, and what more I could learn that would aid in managing in the legal world. (Yes, I’ll do almost anything to benefit my readers!) Maze was more than simply a delectable meal—it was an experience in and of itself. And Ramsay can expect my return business. But other than a restaurant recommendation, why is any of this important?
Today’s law firms are not just competing for clients—they are competing for survival. Ramsay has handed us some practical strategies to increase business and client loyalty, and perhaps to lead the pack as a “go-to” firm. So, going with his key factors, here are points to consider.
When clients have so many providers competing for their business, why would anyone pay good money to hire a firm that cannot provide consistency in its services? Consistency means that the market can expect your services or products to uniformly be of high standard. So the message here is the need for quality control.
The foremost ingredient in quality control is excellent training. If, for example, you throw associates into the deep end without helping them develop the right skills, you cannot expect consistency in their work products or, in turn, client satisfaction. Giving your lawyers the training and tools they need to perform at the highest levels is essential. Unfortunately, especially in tight times, professional development is often considered an area ripe for budget cuts. But is this truly cutting costs? More often than not, it appears to be a case of cutting off the nose to spite the proverbial face.
You also need ongoing quality control. Are you speaking with your clients to find out if they feel that the services they’re receiving are of high quality, and if they have suggestions for improvements? If the quality of a firm’s practice becomes inconsistent, it will have a very difficult time retaining current clients and attracting new ones, leading to more difficulty bouncing back from financial woes.
Trusted, Professional Staff
From the moment I entered Maze to the moment I left, every single staff member performed in a professional, respectful manner, contributing to the comfortable but polished environment. Can the same be said of your employees? Just like in Ramsay’s restaurants, repeat business in law firms comes from believing that the money spent was worth the experience. This is not just about the technical aspects of how individuals perform their jobs: For lawyers and staff alike, delivery of services is clearly a combination of substantive knowledge and the so-called soft skills—things like interpersonal communication, timeliness and teamwork. How does your firm fare in these categories? And do your people demonstrate to clients that they care about their concerns? It only takes one individual behaving unprofessionally to negatively affect the experience clients have with your firm.
Also, do you demonstrate your own trust in your employees, so clients can feel comfortable trusting them, too? Firm leaders should set the standard by displaying mutual respect across all levels of the firm.
You can have a fabulous recipe, but if you don’t use the right ingredients, the outcome can be a disaster. What does this have to do with the practice of law? It comes down to selecting the right people for the job at hand and giving them the tools to do that job right.
In choosing associates, for example, have you identified the characteristics they will need to succeed in your firm? Do you know what competencies must be mastered to progress in different jobs and practice areas? Are you mixing the right combination of individuals to create perfect client or case teams?
Also, for these individuals to do their best work, they need appropriate resources and support. Up-to-date technology tools should be at the top of the list. If you seek to be a highly ranked firm, the tools you implement should allow your people to use their time most effectively and productively in meeting client needs.
Good Prep Work and a Well-Tested Menu
Good prep work begins with listening to your clients. In this fast-paced world, many of us don’t stop to actively listen to learn what clients really want and need. But whether you are cultivating a new client or digging into the details of an existing matter, honing your listening skills is well worth doing. In addition, planning, organizing and strategizing are all important elements of prep work. Without those, it doesn’t matter how smart you or your team members are—the end product won’t be a good one.
Another thing that good restaurants always do is thoroughly test every recipe before serving it to patrons. They know that it isn’t wise to approach something blindly and pray it works out all right—good lawyers know the same thing. Yet in the current economy, some may be tempted to say “yes” to any kind of business that comes through the door, even though it may stretch beyond their substantive know-how. As a colleague of mine says, “It’s similar to an Italian restaurant that pretends to serve the best sushi.” A well-tested menu indicates that you know what your strengths are, and what value you have to offer your clients, and you can deliver in consistently good ways.
A Great Quality Environment
A great quality environment requires that lawyers and administrative staff understand their pivotal role in the production of services. Everyone contributes to the overall successes or failures of the firm and should, therefore, be both productive and efficient, intermixed with a dash of creativity. In addition, you should provide employees with opportunities for growth and allow them to rise to their fullest potential.
Your marketing strategies also help foster the perception of a great quality environment for your clients. The more creative those strategies are, the better, as they should serve a purpose similar to a menu—describing the firm’s various offerings in ways that appeal and draw in business. Your pricing, too, should be fair and reflective of the services clients receive.
Finally, perhaps the most basic of elements in providing your clients with a great quality atmosphere is the human factor, so this bears repeating: Do your best to ensure that clients’ interactions with your firm are positive and productive, for their sake and yours.
At the end of the day, carefully taking into consideration all the factors Chef Ramsay uses in his restaurants will help ensure that your recipe is one that leads to delectable, profitable and highly rated results..
Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent ( ABA, 2000).